Some of us are stressed. Others are overworked, struggling with the new responsibilities of parenthood, or moving from one flawed relationship to another. Whatever it is, whatever you are going through, there is wisdom from the Stoics that can help.
Followers of this ancient and inscrutable philosophy have found themselves at the centre of some of history’s most trying ordeals, from the French Revolution to the American Civil War to the prison camps of Vietnam. Bill Clinton reportedly reads Roman Emperor and stoic Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations once a year, and one can imagine him handing a copy to Hillary after her heart-wrenching loss in the US presidential election.
Stoicism is a school of philosophy which was founded in Athens in the early 3rd century and then progressed to Rome, where it became a pragmatic way of addressing life’s problems. The central message is, we don’t control what happens to us; we control how we respond.
The Stoics were really writing and thinking about one thing: how to live. The questions they asked were not arcane or academic but practical and real. “What do I do about my anger?” “What do I do if someone insults me?” “I’m afraid to die; why is that?” “How can I deal with the difficult situations I face?” “How can I deal with the success or power I hold?”
There also happens to be a decent amount of advice on how to live under the looming threat of a tyrant (“I may wish to be free from torture, but if the time comes for me to endure it, I’ll wish to bear it courageously with bravery and honour,” wrote the Roman philosopher Seneca). All of which makes Stoic philosophy particularly well-suited to the world we live in.
While it would be hard to find a word dealt a greater injustice at the hands of the English language than “stoicism”— with its mistaken connotations of austerity and lack of emotion — in fact, nothing could be more necessary for our times than a good dose of Stoic philosophy.
When the news media provokes us with overwhelming amounts of information, Epictetus, another Roman philosopher, cuts through the noise: “If you wish to improve, be content to appear clueless or stupid in extraneous matters.” When it feels like people are ruder and more selfish than ever, Marcus Aurelius urges us to ask when we ourselves have behaved the same way – and says that the best revenge is simply “to not be like that”.
When the natural inclination is to focus on achievement and money, Seneca’s reminder to his father-in-law, who had just been removed from a prominent position, rings true:
“Believe me, it’s better to produce the balance sheet of your own life than that of the grain market.”
In their writings – often private letters or diaries – and in their lectures, the Stoics struggled to come up with real, actionable answers. They held duty and honour as sacred obligations and they believed that every obstacle they faced was simply an opportunity – to test themselves and be better.
Now Stoicism is finding resonance with new followers. Just last month in New York, a conference called Stoicon was declared to be the largest gathering of Stoics in history.
This kind of philosophy is not an idle pursuit but a crucial tool. As Seneca said,
“Where then do I look for good and evil? Not to uncontrollable externals, but within myself to the choices that are my own.”